Leonard Bernstein made his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic when he was 25 years old. Later, he would lead the orchestra for 11 years as its music director, during which time he helped inspire an entire generation of classical music lovers through his Young People's Concerts. One of those kids was a young Fred Berner. "My dad took me to Young People's Concerts when I was about 9 or 10 years old," the veteran producer recalls.

"I saw Leonard Bernstein in person. I was already a devout West Side Story fan," Berner says. "I felt a kindred, soulful connection to the guy. He's Jewish, he's a musician, he's a New Yorker, he's so many of the things that I like to identify with and think are interesting and worthwhile."

Little did Berner know at the time that he and his producing partner, Amy Durning, would go on to produce an Oscar-nominated biopic of Bernstein's life, Maestro. From their initial conversations with the Bernstein family in 2008 to finally seeing the film realized on the big screen, their journey with Maestro has spanned more than a decade, and much like Lenny himself, the project has lived many lives.

Berner and Durning tapped then up-and-coming screenwriter Josh Singer to pen the script, with Martin Scorsese subsequently signing on to direct. Then, when Scorsese stepped down to direct The Irishman, Steven Spielberg stepped in to assume directing duties. And then, when Spielberg stepped down to direct West Side Story, the duo turned to Bradley Cooper — who had already expressed interest in portraying Leonard Bernstein — to star and direct.

"We had an idea a long time ago, and we put one foot in front of the other," says Berner. "Because the idea had integrity, and because Lenny was who Lenny was, and because there was an allure to the story, it became a bit of a lightning rod and a magnet to people who are devoted artists.

Although there were plenty of false starts, the producers remained committed to seeing the project through — because they felt the Bernstein family deserved it. "It was the first time I felt a responsibility to the content, because it was also my first biographical project about a real human being," Durning explains. "There were a lot of times where I would find myself thinking, 'What would Lenny think? How would Lenny feel about this?'"

At the 96th Oscars, Maestro is up for Best Picture, with Berner and Durning sharing the nomination with Cooper, Spielberg and Kristie Macosko Krieger. The film received seven Oscar nominations in total, including Best Actor in a Leading Role for Cooper, Best Actress in a Leading Role for Carey Mulligan, and Best Original Screenplay for Cooper and Singer. Durning tells A.frame of the recognition, "I actually do believe that Lenny would be pretty psyched."

'Maestro' producers Fred Berner and Amy Durning at the 96th Oscars Nominees Luncheon.

A.frame: You two were responsible for taking the initial steps of getting Leonard Bernstein's life rights. What was each of your initial interest in this story? How did you know there was a movie to be made here?

Fred Berner: The more you familiarize yourself with Leonard Bernstein and all that is theatrical, contradictory, energetic, musical, educational, handsome, interesting [about him], if you can inhabit that on the big silver screen, it's truly exciting. There's always been that charisma at the heart of our attraction. I think Amy and I have done a lot of work together, in which we explore what constitutes a creative life — what it looks like, what is the collateral damage, what's the good news, what's the bad news? We all try and live a creative life, but I think we all try and learn from it at the same time. And then we were just completely taken, mesmerized and grabbed by the jugular by the music.

Amy Durning: Once you start learning about the man, he's just a magnetic personality. But then when you take a step back and you start looking at the music and the actual art, and the conducting, and the composing, and the Broadway musicals, and the TV, and all of that. You also have New York at a moment when it's becoming the artistic center of the world, after Europe is sort of ravaged by the war, and he becomes a global phenomenon. There's so much scale and so much atmosphere, and there was just so much opportunity that it was begging the question, how could this not be a movie on some level?

How did you initially approach the Bernstein family?

Durning: We approached the family's lawyer first, who was a long time confidant to them, and we intrigued him enough by our appreciation for Lenny that he then introduced us to the family. Then ensued about a year and a half to 18 months of solid back and forth on how we would go about it and how a deal would be structured. We ultimately landed on a deal that included life rights, but also all of the music rights that they controlled. The family is lucky enough to control all of his music, except anything that was composed with other people, so it's a huge catalog. In the process of doing that, we also realized that not only does he have a huge catalog of music, but they've literally saved every scrap of paper that he's ever written on and every recording he's ever made. They have seemingly almost everything he ever touched — home videos, date books, cards, presents, everything. They left all of that to us.

Berner: The other thing that I think won them in the end was that it was going to be a complicated portrayal. I wouldn't say warts and all, but it was going to be honest. I had produced Pollock several years prior. That was a tough, hard look at a game-changing artist of the time [Jackson Pollock], but it spared nothing in terms of the portrayal of the story. One thing that's really crucial in putting together a movie like this is that particularly when you're trying to set it up at a studio or another financier, you can't grant script approval [to the family]. So, you really have to earn their trust, because no financier will take a leap on a script that can somehow be dinged by the family somewhere along the line if they don't like what they're seeing.

That's why it took Amy and I some time for them to become comfortable with us and the idea that we were going to make the film that we wanted to make, but we would be respectful. We had no interest in making a piece of cinema that was going to be prurient or sensationalist in any way. The guy lived a very voracious life that could be characterized any number of ways. But it was going to be honest.


This project has been shepherded, at one point or another, by some truly legendary filmmakers — including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg — before Bradley finally took the reigns. As the producers watching this project change hands so many times, what was that journey of attaching talent like for you?

Durning: All the big agencies asked, "What kind of writers and directors do you have in mind that might be interested in this?" That is when we found Josh Singer. We came up with a pitch for a script with Josh, and then we went to Marty and he agreed to be attached as director. Then, we pitched Marty to the studios and Paramount financed the script. That was from 2008 to 2012. Long story short, by the time we got a script, Marty had moved on to something else, and that was the moment where we were like, "What is going to happen and who wants to step in?"

Steven and Josh were working together, and Steven was actually about to start shooting West Side Story. The family had a lot of comfort with him, so then he toyed around with shooting it after West Side Story, as a sort of companion piece. He said, "Well, if I did that, Bradley would play Bernstein." So, they sent the script to Bradley who was on vacation. He had just finished A Star is Born, and he was on a beach somewhere and texted back immediately, "I'm in." He even included photos of himself posing as Lenny.

Berner: He sent these wonderful side-by-side photos where it looked like Leonard Bernstein and Bradley Cooper had been separated at birth. They were identical twins.

Durning: Apparently, he had already thought about it. Then, at some point, Steven decided it wasn't the right thing for him to do after West Side Story. At that point, Bradley invited Steven to come see a cut of A Star is Born, and that's when Steven thought it was a great idea for Bradley to take over as director. And then we all became partners and moved forward with Bradley at the helm.

How did each of their visions differ from one another — Scorsese, Spielberg, and then ultimately Bradley?

Berner: One of the things we always knew, from the very beginning, is that our affinity for the life of Leonard Bernstein was special. We happily bumped into Marty the other night, and he said, "I've always known there was a movie there." I think Leonard was the kind of character that has the kind of appetite that fuels the movies that Martin Scorsese makes. It's a clear, strong persona that has a deep need and a want — Lenny had all of those. Steven has a very specific take on things, which is very story-focused. His affinity, his talents are about creating a story that has an emotional allure to an audience and that connects with an audience. Then, I think Bradley fused all of those things in a way that is uncanny, really. He took all of that research and distilled it down.

Durning: Bradley did so much research of his own. He just devoured everything. He spent a lot of time with the family as well. To be quite honest, the script was originally a bit more broad than where we ended up. It covered a little bit more geographically. It covered more time. But as Bradley immersed himself in the material and the family and the man, he began to ask: What is the story that I'm drawn to tell as I become the man? It became more about family and marriage and love and humanity, and disappointing the people you love, and trying to redeem yourself. It was an interesting process for me to witness — unlike Fred, this was my first time working with a director-actor.

Berner: What happened with Bradley was it became a story that was told from the inside out, as opposed to from the outside in.


Bradley isn't just the director and star. He's also the writer and a producer. What was it like watching him approach this project from all angles? Was there anything about his process that you found unique?

Durning: Mostly, I found the sheer energy and appetite to be really impressive. It was 100 percent constant dedication for years. It was not that dissimilar from Lenny himself, so there could be some inherent kindred spirit there. I think Bradley's really a force, and he just really went in 100 percent. It was really interesting and engaging to watch. Everybody talks about when you can connect a crew and cast and department heads on a singular focus and a singular mission and a singular vision, the strength of what comes out of it. I think maybe having him play all those parts is yes, it's a little bit of an abridged version of getting that singular vision, because it's in everything he does.

Berner: It's highly economical. At one point, Bradley said something like, "It's cheating." He actually made an analogy about football, where there's no one on the sidelines calling the plays. The quarterback calls the play and then makes it himself. There is no disconnect. I get the benefit of not having to go through those translations. There's just no wasted energy. If he's in a scene and he's directing the scene and he trusts all the people around him — which he does, deeply — it's a pure and a simple process in some ways. It allows him to perform the role and know that he's getting what he wants.

When you think back now, what was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome? Or is there something that you learned making this movie that you will take with you into the next one?

Berner: Staying on the horse, you know what I mean? In some ways, there's a lot of lip service paid to perseverance and tenacity. A lot of people talk about the day that production starts, that when you really have to buckle down. For me, the day we started filming and Bradley was directing and starring was the day we could take a deep breath and relax a little bit, because the length of the development process and the different drafts and different studios and different directors, we had to stay the course. The obstacles were constant, and the tides came in and the tides went out, and the tides came in and the tides went out. I don't mean to be overly poetic about it, but I ride them emotionally. There are moments when it doesn't look like it's going to happen after you've spent a lot of time wanting it to happen. It's a process of manifestation and completely unknowable. Listen, we're very lucky, we're very blessed. We wound up with collaborators of the highest degree. The excitement of those moments when someone could see what we see was extraordinary. The disappointment when those moments took longer to manifest than we had hoped was extremely disappointing. You're on a rollercoaster.

You've spent more than a decade of your life working to bring this story to the screen. How does it feel for the film to be received by audiences in the way that it has and to receive seven Oscar nominations, including yours for Best Picture?

Berner: It's extremely cool!

Durning: I'll just say the awards are amazing, and peer recognition is amazing, but nothing has been more meaningful to me than sitting in theaters with audiences who find me after the movie to tell me how much they love it, to tell me they've brought their kids four times, to tell me they can't wait to go show their 80-year-old mother.

Berner: The movie that we all made, but primarily that Bradley crafted from his heart, is deeply human, and that was what we set out to do. This is a man who was a fascinating and compassionate and highly unique human being. The fact that this movie is in the world, and beyond that, that Leonard Bernstein's music and legacy is reintroduced to the world, that's been huge. I think obviously the family's happy about that, and the world's a better place with more of Leonard Bernstein's music.

By Sara Tardiff

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.

Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Picture category for an interview.


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